What did Mevlana actually look like?

“So frail that his bones can be seen, his hair and beard are short, pale complexioned, white skinned and about 180-185 centimeters tall.” This is how Eflaki Ahmed Dede describes for us the physical features of the internationally renowned Turkish mystic Mevlana Jalaluddin Rumi in his work “Menakib'u-l Arifîn” (Feats of Knowers of God) which he penned in 1353, 80 years after the well-known but tacitly misrepresented saint passed away.

However, the known descriptions of Mevlana don't correspond with any of the growing number of varying miniature paintings, intended to represent his appearance, made today.

The same work by Eflaki recounts that a famous painter of the time, Rumi Aynuddevle, drew 20 pictures of Mevlana upon the request of Gurcu Khatun, the daughter of the Seljuk sultan of the time, Sultan Keyhusrev II. The subject of those 20 drawings has been brought forward once again to coincide with the 800th birthday of the great scholar and friend of God, which will be officially celebrated in those countries participating in UNESCO's declaration of 2007 as the “Year of Rumi.” Prominent Turkish miniaturist Ülker Erke suspects that the drawings in question might have been disregarded due to envy or bigotry towards their subject but considers that the picture which corresponds most with the actual drawings is the one kept in the Istanbul Municipal Library.

Mevlana posed standing

“The Feats of Knowers of God” is a work that was written by Eflaki Ahmed Dede, a dervish of the Mevlevi sect, upon the order of his sheikh, Ulu Arif Çelebi, who was Mevlana Rumi's grandson. The work, which has recently been republished by Kabalci Publishing House (www.kabalciyayinevi.com), collects the records of Mevlana's life. Reading the book, those who would like to see the person they are reading about can't help but wonder what happened to the miniatures made by Aynuddevle.

One anecdote hints at a reason: According to the records of Eflaki, there was a female dervish of Mevlana, Emir Suleyman Pervane's daughter, Gürcü Hatun. The daughter of a sultan, she was spiritually “cooked” and became mature through sitting in Mevlana's talks and was a cultured lady. However, she was forced into moving to the nearby town of Kayseri with her emir husband, leaving her spiritual heart with Mevlana, her teacher, and asked the painter of the court Aynuddevle to draw his pictures so she could take consolation in those pictures while absent from his study circles.

A qualified artist cognizant of his newly assigned task, Aynuddevle took a roll of papers with him and went to Mevlana and explained his intention. Mevlana smiled and says, “Draw, if you can,” and posed standing. Sure of his artistic ability, Aynuddevle started drawing. Moments later, he holds up his head and looks at his radiant model. Strangely enough, what he had drawn until that moment didn't resemble Mevlana at all, even though he was so sure he had drawn him perfectly. He took another roll; this time Mevlana appeared to him differently. He made continued trials, taking a third, fourth and fifth roll, but to no avail. Each time he tried to record the image of Mevlana on a piece of paper he failed; the eye of the heart saw differently than the eye of the hand.

As a result, Aynuddevle broke his pen and fell at Mevlana's feet, whereupon Mevlana started reciting an extemporaneous verse: “I'm without a certain color and concealed -- and indeed I cannot regard myself as I am. You ask me to reveal my secrets, whereas there is no space even for these secrets where I am.” All the same, Aynuddevle delivered the drawings he'd made to Gürcü Hatun, who took them with her to Kayseri and kept them in a chest for years. Unfortunately, none of those drawings has survived to our day.

While the fate of the drawings ordered by Gürcü Hatun and the mystery of Aynuddevle's enraptured state still remain unknown to us, the love for Mevlana is growing incredibly fast. 2007 will be celebrated as the Year of Rumi. All lovers of Mevlana, who said, “There is an endless ocean in me,” continue benefiting from his ocean of love and wisdom to the extent their personal vessels for knowledge allow them to. And in the meantime, the number of fabricated miniature images is on the increase.

Ülker Erke (miniaturist): “Mevlana's actual likenesses might have been destroyed by some of his admirers to indicate the thought: “You are ours, we cannot share you.” And we don't have any miniatures dating back to his time. The most befitting I've ever seen, whose whereabouts I now don't know, was the one kept in the Istanbul Municipal Library. It is possible to conclude that the pieces drawn by Aynuddevle resembled Mevlana some way or other; otherwise Gürcü Hatun would not have taken them with her to Kayseri. Mevlana was eloquent and spiritually attractive, with an appearance that was always meaningful. He was definitely not overweight and did not have reddish cheeks. It was as if he had been annihilated in the reed flute he always referred to. Now, he is being drawn without any reference to his spirituality and without considering his teachings of divine wisdom. None of the pictures of him resembles any other. Everyone tends to draw their own Mevlana, resulting in a totally different person, which pains me.”

Nuri Şimşekler (Director, Mevlana Research Institute): “There are about 100 different miniatures claiming to resemble Mevlana on various Web sites. It is not known for certain whether there is an authentic image of him, but perhaps one could be found in private archives. Everyone sees him the way they want because he is a perfect, polished mirror. Indians draw him with long hair and a beard, central Asians as fat, short and with a short beard, whereas he is drawn in the West as thinner, tall and thin-bearded. It is even possible to come across drawings in which he is black or yellow or has a long blond beard. In brief, everyone draws their own Mevlana.”

Esin Çelebi Bayru (Mevlana’s descendant): ‘We don't have the miniatures made by Aynuddevle. The ones drawn today are only reflections of people's imaginations. Some of them somewhat resemble his description in Eflaki's descriptive work, and some of them don't. Mevlana was wheat-skinned, short-bearded and slight from self-discipline and self-restraint, but we still cannot judge anyone for not drawing him like that. We can interpret this in light of a saying of Mevlana: “I talk; everyone takes as much as their level of understanding allows”.'

Musa İğrek, İstanbul

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